Being of the North, I tend to feel most at home in bleak, open stretches of moorland and dale.
I love the rawness, solitude and the hint of menace I feel in exposed secluded landscapes.
Whilst for all intents and purposes, you’re safe, there’s that underlying threat that you’re at the mercy of the elements, and a turn in the weather can change a pleasant stroll into an arduous slog.
It’s a chance to really get to be really honest with yourself by having to seriously reflect on what is or isn’t safe and how you’d cope with the unexpected, that strips you of any pretensions you might have inadvertently built around yourself.
Since being down south, it’s almost impossible experience this.
After a hectic few months at work, the usual stresses of the Christmas period, and – frankly – just being a parent, I needed to recharge.
The last attempt to have a break was an ill-fated day trip to France which ended up with a huge bill for recovering and fixing the car and its blown up engine, and began a crappy run of luck with a dead boiler and the expiration of our oven.
A few weeks before this “character-building” spell, we’d decided to plan ahead and book a couple of days at Elmley Nature Reserve. We’d stayed in one of their shepherd huts before the previous summer, but this time we wanted to go in winter to enjoy cosy nights, and the increased number of migratory species (and things that eat them!) that make it one of the best places for seeing wildlife within a reassuring distance of home/the kids.
I have to confess to having a minor niggle about wildlife in the UK – there does seem to be a focus on birds.
This is understandable to some degree – they’re easier to see against the sky, and whilst many are struggling, there’s still enough of them popping in and out of sight to keep us interested. Programmes like Springwatch do try to look at other species, but whilst I enjoy watching them, I do get the feeling that sometimes they’re focusing cameras on birds more than others as they’re easier to shoot compared to the fewer mammals we’ve got out there.
This has probably led me to not really appreciate the diversity of birdlife we’ve got, but visiting places like Elmley really helps correct that – the variety and number alone should be enough, but when you factor in the sexy raptors that are around (if you can’t see the huge wingspan of a marsh harrier somewhere on the horizon, you’re not looking properly) it makes you appreciate them more.
When we visited before, it had been a great trip, but sightings had been limited by the season – we did see stoat and some hares in the distance, but I never saw the famous barn owl that hunts right outside the shepherds huts. So whilst optimistic, I wanted to stay realistic about my chances of seeing any of the showcase species.
My parents came down from Gods Own County to look after the kids, and after lunch on Saturday we headed up the A2 towards the Isle of Sheppey.
The track into the reserve is a couple of miles through Kent’s own Serengeti. You drive through the marshland that is home to a bewildering number of different species.
On the way in I saw my first ever lapwing – a red listed species that’s seen a dramatic fall in numbers in recent years.
Then I saw another.
And another, and another.
In fact there were hundreds of them just nibbling away at the goodies that the marsh provides.
A flippant part of my brain began to question their conservation status, but the sad fact is, Elmley is something of a refuge for them.
Despite it’s rugged, barren appearance, the whole 3,200 acre site is managed meticulously by the owners Gareth and Georgina. It’s a national nature reserve that’s also a working farm with a strong conservation ethos. The water level is managed to within a fraction of an inch, and the cattle and sheep that roam the wide open expanse are selected to create the optimal conditions to support the wildlife that visits or calls it home.
It’s a magnificent feat of engineering, using little more than gravity, geography and channels to keep conditions in the Goldilocks zone.
We were staying in the newest hut, the Saltbox, which has a glass folding door thing that overlooks a small lake/large pond. The hut is essentially a bed with a kitchen behind it and an ensuite loo/shower. But that doesn’t do it justice. The interior is the sort of relaxed luxury that both was both depressing, when I compared it to the unfinished rooms at home (most of them), and inspirational, with it’s simple design and material choice.
Simple things like the rough wood shelves running above the hob got me wondering where I could salvage more scrap wood for renovating the loft room at home.
The bed was ridiculously comfortable, with the view framed by a wall of glass that made even the misty grey view feel enticing.
As you’re on a marsh, in winter, in a hut, there was an oil filled iron radiator that I would have happily stuck in my bag if I thought I could have got away with it (and my bag was bigger) and hot water bottles with hand-knitted wool covers that I still cant believe kept the content as warm as they did for so long. It was 12 hours or so!
After nipping out for a bite, and returning in the dark, we settled in for a couple of drinks and a much appreciated rest, leaving the curtain open to make sure we got to enjoy the view first thing in the morning.
I woke first and – almost before I could register it – I was watching a barn owl hunting from the comfort of my bed. I gave Laura an excited shake, but couldn’t stir her, so selfishly left her to doze as I watched it quarter the meadow in search of breakfast before heading out of view. Laura stirred and I told her what she missed like a giddy schoolboy, but she didn’t have time to be disappointed before it came back and we sat there, just watching, trying to take it in.
A minute or so later, it again disappeared, but was soon followed by a hare crossing the track outside.
Two good sightings before I was dressed. Not a bad start!
I set myself the challenge of getting a decent shot of a hare – ideally as close as possible so you can see the character in their eyes. Unrealistic? Probably. But it’s sometimes handy to have a goal!
I got up to make a brew (whistling kettle on the gas hob, can’t beat it) and put on some porridge while we got ready for a wander through the reserve.
We’ve got a decent-ish DSLR (Canon 600D) but would by no means say I’m proficient in using it to it’s full advantage. I go through spells of working on my shooting, but invariably it gets neglected for a spell and I forget most of what I’d begun to learn and have to start again from slightly above scratch.
I was determined to use it to try to help capture the magic of the place, but more realistically, it was a chance for me to once again try to refamiliarise myself with the settings, and have a play with composition on my mission to become a slightly better than incompetent amateur photographer.
Taking it out on a grey, overcast morning on a windswept marsh wasn’t ideal in terms of lighting and comfort, but if you don’t try, you don’t learn.
I took the stock lens along in my bag while I stuck an old 80-210mm I’d been given a couple of years before by my father-in-law on the camera, in the vain hope of trying to get a spectacular close up of a hare.
My plan was sound, but failed on a couple of accounts. Firstly, the potential for glorious views needed a wider lens, and I couldn’t be arsed to faff with gloves and lens changes whilst keeping moving when the temperature is just hovering above freezing.
Secondly, hares are selfish and don’t come out for pictures on demand. I think the local population had had a meeting following my earlier sighting and decided that a brief glimpse was more than enough for my stay.
They probably were put up to it by that from the prick of a robin that would sit majestically on an overhanging branch outside the window of the hut, only to bugger off the instant you’d framed up the shot. I gave up trying after half a dozen attempts, and he seemed to lose interest from then on.
Anyway, we wandered along the track, keeping eyes peeled for any movement in the reeds, and scanning the sky for photographic opportunities.
Our eldest would have loved the sight of a spooked heron lumbering in flight across the track. I tried to snap a few shots, but some idiot (ahem) had put it in autofocus so whilst you can identify a heron, you can’t read it’s licence plate.
Elmley is one of the few places I know where as soon as I get there a little switch in my brain flips to “aaaaand relax”. As I get older – I wanted to say grow up, but do we ever? – I really try to take stock of these moments and try to internalise them in the hope of being able to draw on them when the hectic routine returns. It’s a similar feeling to when I was out on the mountain bike, just flowing through trails in the woods. You don’t need to think, you just feel your way along, letting instinct replace over-analysis.
In winter the cattle are taken in, and Romney sheep – the breed that the wool for the blankets and magical hot water bottle covers in the hut come from – are left to do the work of keeping the grass at the right height. Laura’s underlying Welsh genetics clearly overpowered her when we reached part of the flock and she wanted to get a pic. I’m presuming, everyone with links to the principality has some kind of scrapbook of all the sheep they’ve seen that they keep like a family bible, so can’t miss an opportunity to add one to the collection.
We kept strolling to the hides that overlook another pond/lake that had a staggering number of different species of wildfowl, and I gave up trying to get pics and just decided to enjoy the experience of being in the middle of nowhere. We were probably the only bipedal mammals in a mile, if not more, in at least two directions – not something you can say every day when you live in the apparently congested south east of England.
Strolling back, every now and then another bird would flit past, too quick for my unpractised eye to identify. It didn’t matter to me whether it was that prick of a robin or the last dodo in the world, it was just good to be able to share their world.
I’d like to say one day I’ll capture decent pics of them – on another stroll I did work on my technique for focussing quickly on fast moving subjects. But, being honest with myself, I think I need to just get used to being out and appreciating wonderful places more. I need to learn, understand and appreciate the natural environment around me more, and then the pics will come after. In the meantime, I’ll practice where I can and try to get used to sharing their environment, rather than observing it.
I also need to take time to appreciate and plan other aspects of my life. From finishing more of the jobs around the house, to how I prioritise what is or isn’t important when I’m back in the old routine.
Hopefully this approach will help me get more joy out of life – seeing more things like badgers, foxes and otter out in the wild, and using my time better to do the things to the house I either know I can do (and enjoy doing) , or can learn to do, that will make a real difference.
I need to get better at all of this, and then hopefully some of it will rub off on the kids and they’ll want to share the natural world with me. There’s little hope at present as they don’t understand the need to be quiet or still (believe me, I’ve tried), but with a bit of encouragement they might get there eventually.
I can’t wait until they’re old enough to come back to Elmley with me – they can help me find one of those sodding hares!